When You Are Engulfed in Flames (audio)

Humor is a funny thing. What one person finds hilarious, another will find mystifying, gross, or even offensive. It’s highly individual and, for me anyway, depends very much on the circumstances. My experiences with David Sedaris are a case in point. My first experience with him was when I read his book Me Talk Pretty One Day more than 10 years ago. Despite Sedaris’s reputation as a brilliant humorist, I didn’t find it particularly funny. I cracked a smile a few times, but mostly I just thought it was mildly amusing and sometimes dull.

A few years after that, I became a fan of This American Life, a radio show to which Sedaris frequently contributes. I really enjoyed his stories on that show, and even laughed out loud at a few of them. His humor is not always of the belly-laugh variety, but he has a great eye for the amusing detail. He also has a tendency to say the not-so-nice things I sometimes think but don’t say—and he doesn’t seem mean-spirited because he’s always willing to make fun of himself. After becoming a fan of Sedaris on radio, I picked up an audio version of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim at the library on impulse, and I loved it. The story “Six to Eight Black Men” (about Christmas customs around the world—emphasizing the Dutch) had me laughing so hard I thought I was going to have to pull over the car when I was listening to it during my commute. With that, I realized that I did like Sedaris’s books, but only to listen to. (I’ve since discovered the same about Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff—meh on paper, wonderful on audio.)

Sedaris’s 2008 essay collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is a bit darker than some of his others, but it’s still entertaining and includes some nice bits of wisdom about life and death. I’d only heard one the stories before—one in which Sedaris purchases a gadget called a Stadium Pal, an external catheter. His thought was that it would be great on a book tour. (Long plane rides, no problem! No need for a break during a book signing; keep those fans coming.) He discovered that, well, urine smells, even when it’s in a bag taped to your leg. Plus, it turns out that it’s not easy to take a leak while you’re doing something else.

My favorite story was one in which he finally managed to get his partner, Hugh, the perfect Christmas gift. Sedaris is always ready with suggestions for his own gifts, but Hugh likes to be more subtle with his hints, figuring that someone who knows him so well should be able to figure it out. In this story, it worked out perfectly, for Hugh anyway. The gift, an actual human skeleton, ended up taunting David about his own mortality. What I loved about this story is how it packed in so much about relationships and the expectations we have of those we love, along with a message about the inevitability of death—and all couched in a really funny story with a great punch line, delivered in a wonderfully dead pan style.

Other favorites involved his parents’ art collection; the community of spiders that lived in his windowpanes; an outcast neighbor in Normandy; a cooky New York city neighbor; an unpleasant encounter involving a throat lozenge, a sneeze, and a cranky seatmate on an airplane; and the birds that persistently attacked his house after Hugh played a track on a Kate Bush CD that featured birdsong. (I have that one, and now I’m afraid to play it!) The collection is capped off with a long piece on Sedaris’s efforts to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for several months. This multipart essay is almost long enough to be a nonfiction novella, and it’s quite enjoyable.

I’ve learned that Sedaris tends to be an author people get or don’t get. If you get Sedaris, you’ll probably find this collection worthwhile. If you don’t, it probably won’t turn you around. If you’re not sure, I’d suggest starting instead with some of his This American Life stories, just to see which camp you fall in. The Stadium Pal story is in the “Family Physics” episode, and his observations about Dutch Christmas celebrations are in the episode titled “Them.”

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27 Responses to When You Are Engulfed in Flames (audio)

  1. softdrink says:

    Vowell on audio is fabulous…she sounds so snarky.

    I think my problem with both Vowell and Sedaris is that I do find them funny, and then I read their books too close together, and then I burn out and they’re not so funny anymore.

  2. I think he’s hilarious, but I can see that he wouldn’t appeal to everyone. Oddly enough, I didn’t care much for his story collection Holidays on Ice. I like his nonfiction stuff but I didn’t get the fiction. I did listen to When You are Engulfed in Flames on audio — I think he’s delivery is so good, it’s better than reading him in print.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read or listened to Holidays on Ice, although I may have heard a story or two on NPR at some point.

      His delivery is absolutely what makes it a pleasure.

  3. litlove says:

    I do appreciate him no end. I love Six to Eight Black Men and I also love the chapters in Me Talk Pretty One Day about learning French (obviously!). He sounds funny in print to me, but as you say, humour really is so subjective, you can’t be sure how anyone is going to react.

    • Teresa says:

      He has another language adventure in this book–this time going to Japanese class. It’s pretty hilarious.

      I think when I read him in print, I kept trying to read for a punch line, and he doesn’t really write traditional jokey stories. But I know other people who find his voice annoying and love him in print.

  4. Michelle says:

    I hadn’t thought of listening to Sarah Vowell instead of reading her, I think that is excellent advice. Especially if she is the one doing the reading. I’d heard her on NPR at some point and then bought her book but didn’t love it as I’d expected.

    David Sedaris is one of my favorite humorists although I do see where he might not be everyone else’s favorite – I’ve enjoyed almost all of his pieces in The New Yorker and several of his books. Dress Your Family in Corduroy had me laughing out loud, which is pretty rare for me.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know if Sarah Vowell reads all her books, but she did read Partly Cloudy Patriot, which I enjoyed. (Assassination Vacation, which I read, was only so-so.)

  5. Steph says:

    I have not had any encounters with Sedaris’s writing, but I know so many people who find him hilarious. I’m sure I would probably find him funny too, but the one thing I know is that I’ll have to read his works for myself because his voice makes me crazy!

  6. Lori L says:

    I heard Sedaris tell his Stadium Pal story on NPR’s This American Life and I almost needed one myself! It was so brilliantly told that I had tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard.

  7. Melissa says:

    I’ve been a big fan of Sedaris’ work for a long time. I definitely agree he’s best when you listen to his books instead of read them. I haad the chance to attend a reading/book signing of his when this one was released in 2008 and he read the stadium pal essay. I couldn’t stop laughing!

    — Karenlibrarian— Holidays on Ice is actually a nonfiction collection, mainly chronicling his time working as an elf in MAcy’s Christmasland.

  8. Emily says:

    I agree that Sedaris is SO much funnier/better in audio format. And I too learned to love him through This American Life (to which my partner David is fanatically devoted). I think his stories about his family, Hugh, living in France, and weird cultural stuff are hilarious. His new series of stories about animals acting like humans bug me to an unreasonable extent, though, almost to the point where we have to turn the radio off if one of them comes on TAL.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve only heard one of the animal stories, and although I didn’t find it as funny as his other stuff, I did enjoy it. But I’m skeptical about a whole book of those stories, even on audio.

  9. Jeanne says:

    I love to read or listen to Sedaris, but listening to him definitely adds a dimension to his essays, because he’s a very good performer. The most recent audio has some things he hasn’t published, and there’s one about sounding pretentious when pronouncing words from other languages that has already formed part of my entire family’s vocabulary.

  10. Stefanie says:

    Does he narrate the audio versions of his book himself? My first Sedaris was also Me Talk Pretty One Day for a book group and I thought it rather unfunny. But then Sedaris came into town and my group got tickets and oh my goodness, did I ever laugh! And then I found he was on NPR and have enjoyed many of his stories there, but haven’t tried reading another of his books because it seems to me I need his voice and his sense of timing to be part of the equation.

    • Teresa says:

      I believe he reads all his own books. I know he did this one and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but I’d be surprised if someone else were to perform any of his books. You should definitely try the audio of his books if you like his NPR stories–a lot of them are from his books.

  11. Juxtabook says:

    I am not familiar with this author but I think in general books that are funny, particularly ones that are wry or subtle, tend to be better read aloud. Do you think you enjoyed this more because it was audio (and you had got used to his humour in the audio context of the radio)?

    • Teresa says:

      I’m pretty sure I did like it more because it was on audio, and years of listening to his stories definitely got me used to his style. I am curious as to whether I’d now find him funny in print after listening to him so much—maybe I’d hear his voice in my head as I read.

  12. Emilee says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Sedaris’s essays, but I recently found out that I really don’t like his fiction. Maybe the gross things are funnier to me when I think they’re pulled from real life rather than just made up.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever read or listened to any of his fiction other than the animal stories, but I do know what you mean about certain kinds of things being funnier when they’re true (even if exaggerated).

  13. Kathleen says:

    I’ve yet to read or listen to Sedaris so not sure what I will think of him. But I have heard that he is a good one to listen to on audio vs. read.

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